November 29, 2018 | 9:05pm ET
By Anthony Di Marco, The Fourth Period
HEXTALL’S FIRING UNFORTUNATE, BUT NECESSARY
MONTREAL, QC -- Four and a half years of patience. Compiling assets and building towards the future. Ron Hextall’s tenure as General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers in a nutshell. But this past Monday, the clock finally struck midnight.
Following an embarrassing loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night, Flyers’ Team President Paul Holmgren and Comcast Spectacor (the Flyers parent company) CEO Dave Scott pulled the plug on Hextall’s plan and relieved him of his duties as Executive Vice President and GM.
Holmgren stated that he has already begun his search for a new GM for the club, and it will be form “outside the organization.”
On TSN’s Insider Trading segment on Tuesday, Pierre LeBrun stated that former Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher is the current frontrunner for the position. Additionally, Kings’ Assistant GM Mike Futa, former Toronto Maple Leafs executive Mark Hunter, and Buffalo Sabres Assistant GM Steve Greeley have also been tied to the Flyers.
Dean Lombardi, currently a Senior Advisor with the Flyers, is not interested in the position, but will stay on with the club in the search for a new-GM, per Holmgren.
Holmgren cited the “philosophical” differences as the primary reason for the divorce, and repeatedly described Hextall as “unyielding” in his vision for the organization.
Hextall inherited a team that was mired with bad contracts, an aging roster and a waste baron of a farm system. The organization’s top prospects were Shayne Gostisbehere, Scott Laughton, Robert Hagg and Sam Morin at the time; none of which were projected to be “home runs” as Gostisbehere had yet to break out at Union College.
Overseeing the past five drafts, Hextall’s draft brilliance was on full display. Totaling eight first-round picks over that time, Hextall selected Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, German Rubtsov, Nolan Patrick, Morgan Frost, Joel Farabee and Jay O’Brien in that chronological order. Fifty percent of those picks have already turned into impact players in the NHL.
Hextall’s brilliance wasn’t exclusive on compiling future assets, as his contract management has put the Flyers organization in its best spot in the salary cap era. Over his tenure, Hextall moved out the albatross contracts of Vinny Lecavalier, Chris Pronger, Nicklas Grossmann, to name a few. Additionally, the team friendly contracts he awarded to Gostisbehere (six years, $4.5 AAV) and Sean Couturier (six years, $4.33 AAV) have become some of the best bargain deals in the league.
The state of the Flyers’ future is no doubt in great shape; but what about the here and now?
Since his inauguration in May of 2014, Hextall preached “patience” to the Flyers faithful. For the most part, the fan base bought in. Coming off of an ultra-aggressive era that was overseen by then-GM Holmgren, the fans were ready for a new direction. Build through the draft, avoid free agency, etc. The Flyers’ organization even bought in to Hextall’s vision, as foreign as it was.
But patience can only go so far, and four (going on five years) of mediocrity was enough in the eyes of Flyers upper management.
While Hextall did incredible (and desperately needed) things for the organization, his dismissal is one that needed to be made. The Flyers are on pace to miss the playoffs for the third time in five years, currently sitting dead last in the entire Eastern Conference (10-12-2). The Flyers are by no means a Stanley Cup Contender, but given the talent on the current roster, there is no way this team should be a bottom feeder.
Although it was not confirmed by Holmgren or Scott during their press conference, rumors surrounding the coaching staff was one of the disconnects between them and Hextall.
Hextall went to bat for his coach, Dave Hakstol, on numerous occasions, and was resilient to part ways with him. According to a source close to the club, Scott admitted that “(recently fired Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel) Quenneville’s name came up in conversation.”
The Flyers have always floundered early in seasons under Hakstol, as the club went through a 10-game losing streak just last year. It was a re-occurring trend of the team, but one that Hextall seemed content with.
Aside from the coaching staff, which is now down an Assistant Coach in Gord Murphy, who was fired on Wednesday along with Assistant GM Steve Pryor, Hextall’s roster management decisions were questionable at times.
First and foremost, the goaltending situation has been an unmitigated disaster under his watch. He inherited a team that was backstopped by Steve Mason, who, if you go by the numbers, is one of the Flyers’ most consistent goaltenders in the team’s history. Mason was ultimately let go in 2017, as Hextall inked Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth on two-year deals to go in a platoon direction.
Neuvirth has dealt with injury after injury (having only played in one game this season), while Elliott has joined him on the injury shelf of late. As a result, the Flyers have started five different goaltenders this season. Cal Pickard, Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz have all shared the net with the previously alluded duo, and the five collectively have the league’s worst team save percentage in the NHL. Leaving the goaltending in the hands of Neuvirth and Elliott (two goaltenders who have an injury history) was malpractice by Hextall, and is the single biggest failure as GM.
But Hextall’s usage of the goaltenders is one that completely summarizes his philosophy: his eyes were completely on the future. Two summers ago, he didn’t want to make a play for Ben Bishop because he didn’t want to get locked into a long term deal with a goaltender, in hopes that Carter Hart would eventually be the starter. He failed to add a top-four defenseman, which the team still desperately needs, because he was confident the plethora of prospect defenseman would fill that gap. Aside from James van Reimsdyk, whom he signed just this past summer, he never added a scoring forward which the team has lacked for the last four years. The club’s penalty kill has been atrocious for the last three seasons (currently operating at less than 70%), and failed to address it in any way over that time via personnel moves.
Hextall’s vision was one that was desperately needed by a Flyers organization that was far behind the eight-ball in a salary cap world. He has left the team in a great spot moving forward and, if managed properly, could be a top contender for years to come. But his unwillingness to stray from his plan and, as Holmgren stated, “push the team forward.” ended his reign as GM.
Although his moves secured the club’s future with a plethora of high level prospects, Hextall’s vision neglected the Flyers’ current core of players.
To put it blatantly, Hextall took over a team that went to seven games of the first round of the playoffs and has failed to get them back there in four seasons. The fans and the upper management no longer want to be good in “two to three years,” as Scott put it, and would like to see some payoff in the present.
Patience is a virtue, but in Hextall’s case, it proved to be his demise.